Category Archives: Christmas

Almost Twelfth Night…

And just like that, another festive period is nearly over. But apparently it was not always like that. I was glued to Victorian Bakers at Christmas which explored the history of food at this time of the year, and apparently celebrations used to run over the whole Twelve Days of Christmas. This actually makes a lot of sense when you’ve got a predominantly rural and agricultural society with not much to do in the deep dark days of winter. It was the Industrial Revolution that did for this, and whittled the festivities down to just a couple of days. There was also a fascinating look at some of the festive “treats” of the past (and I use that term loosely). Mincemeat pies filled with real meat (beef if you were rich, chopped tripe if you were less well off), and a behemoth of a bake called Twelfth Cake, which seemed to be a yeast-raised fruitcake composed of 75% currants, and coated with some sort of meringue icing. Fascinating to find out a bit of history, but those are two baked items that I don’t think I’ll be turning my hand to in the near future!

Having seen how things were done by the Victorians, I can look back with a little pride at my own take on the Twelve Days of Christmas Baking for 2016. This year, I’ve completed my sixth installment of what has become something of a Christmas tradition. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. I keep banging on about being more organised, being more realistic about the complexity of the recipes I’ll attempt to make, and trying to avoid spending money on pieces of kitchen equipment that are needed to make only one specific type of cookie (pizzelle, I’m thinking about you!).  And of course, when December comes rolling around this year, we get to do it all again.

So here’s to my 2016 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I’m pretty happy that I’ve managed to find some very different recipes this year, and I’ve managed a fairly good spread of traditional cookies and treats from across Europe. Some are very old, like the Italian Biscotti di Regina and Cavalluci, through to more modern creations like Spanish Marquesas de Navidad.

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As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the Cavalluci might look like golden rings if your eyesight is not good, and I guess that there is a tree in the Borstplaat shapes, even if not a pear tree…

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Italian Nadalin de Verona)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Spanish Marquesas de Navidad)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Finnish Joulutorttu)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Swedish Hallongrottor)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Greek Kourabiedes)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Florentines)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Danish Kransekager)…
…five Gold Rings (Italian Cavalluci)…
…four Colly Birds (Finnish Piparkakut)…
…three French Hens (Italian Biscotti di Regina)…
…two Turtle Doves (Norwegian Sandkaker)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Dutch Borstplaat)!

And so we wrap things up for another year. I will be doing this again in 2017, so if you have any traditional recipes that you would like to see on here, please do leave a comment or get in touch. If they have an interesting history or amusing story to go with them, or are associated with a quirky tradition, then so much the better!

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{12} Nadalin de Verona

And here we are! The final installment of 2016’s edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas!

Today I’ve turned my hand to a very traditional Italian cake, the Nadalin de Verona. This is a rich dough raised with yeast, which should hint that it has a long history, pre-dating our modern raising agents. It is flavoured with butter, vanilla and lemon zest, and topped with pine nuts, chopped almonds and sugar.

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It is fair to say that the big name of the Italian festive cake world is the panettone, closely followed by the pandoro. I make panettone fairly often, as it is easy with a bread machine and it always proves popular. However, I’ve never had a go at pandoro. The name means “golden bread” and it gets this colour from many, many, many egg yolks in the dough. I’m sometimes a very lazy baker and don’t like ending up with lots of spare egg whites. I guess I’ll get round to making a pandoro the next time I have to make a pavlova…

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But back to the star of today. The nadalin (also called the “natalino”) dates back as far as the 13th century, and is suggested as the ancestor of the modern pandoro. It is said to have been created to mark the investiture of the Della Scala family as the Lords of Verona. It is often linked to the most famous tragic romance of all time – the nadalin appears first in 1303, the same time that the events of Romeo and Juliet as said to have taken place. I’m not clear quite what the link is, but this cake may have featured on a medieval banquet table where either of the star-crossed lovers were present.

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Now, in the interests of Christmas, I’ve actually made the nadalin not just once, but twice!

I looked at a few recipes before making the nadalin, and settled on the “authentic” version on the website of the City of Verona tourist office. However I am sorry to say it didn’t quite work for me. It is made from eggs, a lot of butter and quite a bit of sugar. My baking instincts said this would be a very rich dough and the yeast might struggle to get a good rise, and it turned out to be so. It was of course perfectly tasty, but it didn’t have the lightness I prefer from sweet breads. This is all personal preference, but what to do?

Well I mentioned that I make panettone quite often, so I looked at my own recipe and adjusted to reflect the flavours of the nadalin – out with the dried fruit, and in with the vanilla and lemon zest. I also added a small handful of crushed sugar cubes to add some additional sweetness to the dough. Entirely optional, but this seemed like a sensible way to get a bit more sugar in the dough without making it too rich to rise well. I’m pleased to say this all worked very well, and the result is a light, sweet and fragrant festive bread.

To finish the nadalin, it is brushed with melted butter and topped with pine nuts and chopped almonds. They were a delicious addition, as they toast during baking to provide some crunch and flavour contrast.

Traditionally the nadalin is baked in a star shape. However I’ve bought so many pieces of baking equipment recently that I had to make do with the round cake tin I already had.  To make up for my cake being the “wrong shape” I made a simple star template and placed it on top of that nadalin before dusting with icing.

The nadalin is traditionally enjoyed with cocoa or a special wine after Christmas Eve mass. I would also quite happily much on a piece of this on a chilly winter evening too!

And with that, my 12 Days of Christmas Baking is over for 2016. I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed finding new inspiration, trying new baking techniques and eating the results! See you for the 2017 edition – if you have any suggestions of local specialities that I should try, leave a comment below.

To make a Nadalin de Verona (nom-traditional)

For the dough:

• 2 eggs
• 150ml milk, boiled and cooled
• 75g butter
• 50g sugar
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried yeast

• 400g strong white flour
• small handful of sugar cubes, crushed

To decorate:

• melted butter, to brush
• 50g pine nuts
• 50g chopped almonds
• 20g pearl sugar

To finish:

• 100g icing sugar
• water
• icing sugar, to dust

1. Make the dough – I used a bread machine for all the hard work. Put everything apart from the sugar cubes into the bread machine. Run the dough cycle.

2. Crush the sugar cubes. Work into the finished dough.

3. Line a cake tin (or wide saucepan) with greaseproof paper. Take the dough out of the machine, form into a ball, and press into the tin. Leave in a warm place, loosely covered with clingfilm, until the dough has doubled in size. Traditionally this is for 3 hours, but as my recipe is lighter, this could happen more quickly.

4. Just before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F).

5. Now prepare the topping. Melt some butter, and mix the pine nuts, flaked almonds and pearl sugar in a bowl.

6. Brush the nadalin generously with the melted butter. Sprinkle over the nut mixture and press down very gently.

7. Bake the nadalin for around 45 minutes to an hour until risen and golden, and it sounds hollow when tapped. If the nuts are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

8. When baked, remove the nadalin from the oven. Make a simple icing with 100g icing sugar and 3 tablespoons of boiling water, and drizzle on top of the nadalin – this will form a glaze, and help keep the nuts in place.

9. Leave to cool completely, then dust with icing sugar before serving. I used a star template as a nod to the traditional shape.

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{9} Hallongrottor

I’ve made some rather elaborate things in the last couple of weeks, so today I’ve turned my hand to something easy. If you’re looking to amuse some small kitchen helpers with limited attention spans, then this might be one to try.

These little biscuits are called hallongrottor, a Swedish bake which means “raspberry cave”. I guess they are a type of thumbprint cookie, but with just about the cutest name possible. I realised that I’ve ticked off Norway, Denmark and Finland already this year, so it only seems fair to make something from Sweden.

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Making these little guys is a complete breeze. You just need to work with some very soft butter, and whip it until it is super-soft. Add icing sugar and beat some more, then add your flavourings and beat some more. You could make this by hand with a whisk and lots of elbow grease, but your arms will thank you for using an electric beater. One for the Christmas list if you don’t already have one!

Finally, you work in the flour, then roll the dough into balls. To get them more or less the same size, I rolled this out on a worktop into a long sausage, then cut into equally sized pieces. How equal? I used my precision Japanese steel ruler. Every piece was two centimetres exactly. Sounds nerdy, but it will get you pretty good even sizes without the faff of weighing each piece.

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To finish them off, you then roll them into balls, then make a dent for the jam. I tried various kitchen implements, but by far the easiest way was to bend my index finger, and poke the middle “bony bit” into the top. You may want to use clean hands for that part…and then just pop your jam of choice into the dent. I tried using a small teaspoon and it was a complete mess. Use a piping bag, and beat the jam until soft before trying to pipe it in. I didn’t do this at first, and so the nozzle of my piping bag got blocked, then lots squirted out when I squeezed hard, so be careful!

I actually made two versions of these – one using just plain flour, and one using a about one-fifth cornflour. It is definitely worth using the cornflour – the texture is lighter and more crumbly – so that’s the recipe I have included below.

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To make Hallongrottor (makes 15)

• 100g butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
• 100g plain flour
• 25g cornflour
• jam (I used seedless raspberry)

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Put 15 mini cupcake cases on a baking sheet.

2. Put the butter in a bowl and beat until very soft. Add the icing sugar, baking powder, vanilla and cinnamon, and beat well until fluffy. Add the flour and cornflour, and mix well. Put the bowl in the fridge for 10 minutes.

3. Remove the dough from the bowl, roll into a long sausage and cut into 15 pieces. I roll it out to 30 cm long, and cut into 2cm chunks – this gets roughly equal sizes.

4. Roll each piece into a ball, then put into a paper case. Make an indentation in the top, and fill with a little jam.

5. Bake for 10 minutes until golden, turning half way to get an even bake.

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{8} Kourabiedes

Kourabiedes are a traditional cookie from Greece. And that should set some alarm bells ringing…

I always approach making traditional cookies with a little bit of trepidation. In this case, I have visions of Greek mothers and grandmothers raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes. In my head, there is this Greek chorus of collective tutting as an entire people just know that their version is clearly superior to my attempt. And that their recipe is obviously better than everyone else’s attempts as well…

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With that disclaimer out there, I still think that my attempt is pretty decent. I mean, with all that icing sugar on them they look like they are made of snow!

In fact, they are part of a family of similar cookies – polvorones in Spain, Russian tea cakes or Mexican wedding cakes, or Austrian vanilla crescents. What they have in common is a sweet, crumbly pastry with chopped nuts, with the whole cookies dredged in icing sugar to provide even more sweetness.

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This is a very easy recipe to make. You just need to whip up the butter to get it nice and soft, then whip lots of air in as you add the sugar, egg yolk and various flavours. I’ve used vanilla as a background flavour, and combined it with brandy and orange blossom water. It is also important to use toasted nuts in this recipe – the nuts all some crunch to contrast to the soft, crumbly texture of the biscuit, but toasting them means the cookies had a richer flavour.

Shaping them is a doddle too – I found that it was worth chilling the dough slightly before shaping, as it made it a little easier to handle, but otherwise just scoop up spoonfuls of the mixture and roll them in your hands. However, I would not recommend my usual roll-into-a-sausage-and-cut-into-slices approach, as the mixture is a bit too soft for that. Tablespoons all the way!

Once you have baked the kourabiedes, you get another chance to add more flavour. I’ve seen recipes where Greek matriarchs liberally sprinkle ouzo over the hot cookies, which might be the way to go if you like aniseed flavours. I went for a less adventurous option and brushed them with some brandy cut with a little rosewater. There was a little sizzle, a puff of steam and a lovely aroma!

While the kourabiedes are still warm, you also need to get them into a dish full of icing sugar. They will still be fragile, so handle them with care. The icing sugar will combine with the butter in the cookies to form a sweet coating, then move them to a cooling rack and use a sieve to give them another coating of icing sugar. Get into the festive mood by imagining that this is snow. Then leave them to cool, and pile them high on a plate to serve alongside good strong coffee, or perhaps that herbal tea you picked up on holiday in Greece.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα (Kala Hristouyienna, Greek for Merry Christmas)!

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To make Kourabiedes (makes around 30)

For the dough:

• 250g unsalted butter
• 125g icing sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon brandy

• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g toasted almonds, ground
• 75g toasted almonds, chopped
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 300g plain flour
• pinch of salt

To finish:

• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1/4 teaspoon rosewater
• icing sugar, to cover

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the butter in a bowl and beat well until light and fluffy. Add the icing sugar and egg yolk, and beat for another couple of minutes. Mix in the brandy, orange blossom water and vanilla and give it another good whip, then fold in the ground almonds.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the chopped almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. Fold into the butter mixture and mix until it all comes together. You might need to use your hands at the end. Pop in the fridge to chill for 10 minutes.

4. Take generous spoonfuls of the dough. Roll half of them into balls, transfer to a baking sheet and flatten slightly. Roll the other pieces of dough into balls, then shape them into crescent shapes and transfer a baking sheet.

5. Bake the cookies in batches of 12 for around 15 until just golden, turning them half-way to get an even bake. In the meantime, mix the brandy and rosewater in a dish.

6. Once baked, remove from the oven and brush immediately with the brandy-rosewater mixture. Allow to cool for a moment, then roll them in icing sugar. Transfer to a cooking rack, and dust generously with more icing sugar and leave to cool.

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{7} Florentines

I can never resist a good Florentine. There is something about those golden discs of caramel, studded with cherries, citrus, nuts and ginger and dipped in chocolate that is just magical. They might not strictly be a Christmas treat, but I think they lend themselves very well to this time of year.

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In my younger days, I assumed that Florentines were named after the city of Florence, but it turns out this is only partly true. I should have suspected this to be the case when, years ago, I had a few hours to explore Florence while waiting for a train connection (and hey, it was Florence, I was hardly going to hang out at the station for three hours!). Were there shops groaning under the weight of these biscuits? No. I found one pasticceria selling square Florentines, so I cut my losses and went with one of them. But clearly this was not a biscuit that the citizens of this city were clutching close to their collective bosom.

So what is the truth? Well, this is lost in the mists of time, but the name probably has something to do with the French, and the resemblance of these caramel discs to the gold coins of Florence (incidentally, the British two shilling coin was also known as the florin).

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There are two ways you can make these cookies. If you drop spoonfuls onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper, they will spread out and you get large, crisp and delicate Florentines (there is enough butter in them to prevent sticking). However, you can drop small teaspoons into the bottom of a non-stick muffin tray – they’ll be slightly thicker but perfectly round so good if you’re giving them as a gift and need to travel with them and want them to look fancy. My pictures are of these “neat” Florentines, and I think they look very pretty.

However…if you’re going to use a muffin tray, please make sure that it is sufficiently non-stick! I assumed non-stick means non-stick. Well, I have two pans. One works like a dream, but the other is anything but non-stick. I found myself trying and ultimately failing to remove one batch from the tray, and had to junk the lot. As the mixture does not need to be baked quickly, you can take your time and do a test version to make sure it works. If it doesn’t, just switch to making the bigger versions using a tray with greaseproof paper. You don’t want all that work to go to waste and they will still taste fantastic!

To finish them off, you can leave them as they are (or “naked Florentines” as I’ve seen them called) but I think you really do need to spread one side with chocolate. If you are a milk or white chocolate fiend, then by all means go for it, but I think it really has to be dark chocolate on these little beauties. I think it works so well with the toasted nuts, ginger and citrus in the biscuits, and why mess with a classic? To make them look impressive, use tempered chocolate for a nice shine and snap, and use a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate.

Incidentally, if you think you’ll do a lot of dipping things in chocolate, it really is worth getting a food thermometer. They are not expensive and it means you can get your chocolate to the right temperatures. I’ve tried various methods over the years, but using the thermometer is hands down the easiest and most reliable method I’ve every tried. Never have dull chocolate again!

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In terms of the ingredients, you can play around with them to get a mixture that you like. You can use slivered almonds instead of flaked, or swap some of the almonds for pistachios, hazelnuts or even a handful of jumbo rolled oats. You can also adjust the proportions of cherries, peel, ginger and sultanas, or even omit some of them altogether, but try to keep to the same overall weight. You can even go for a retro vibe if you can get your hands on some green candied angelica – I remember those flecks of bright green in Florentines from my childhood, but it seems to have vanished from most supermarket shelves these days. If you find some – it’s a sign that you should make Florentines!

To make Florentines (makes around 24)

Dry ingredients

• 90g flaked or slivered almonds
• 90g glacé cherries
• 60g candied peel, chopped
• 20g glace ginger
• 30g sultanas
• 15g plain flour

For the caramel

• 45g butter
• 30g soft brown sugar
• 30g white sugar
• 1 tablespoon double cream
• large pinch of salt

To finish

• 150g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). For large Florentines, line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper rubbed with a little butter. For small Florentines, get a non-stick muffin tray and rub lightly with butter.

2. Prepare the dry ingredients – chop the cherries, peel and ginger as you prefer, then add the almonds, sultanas and flour. Toss so that everything is coated and well-mixed.

3. Make the caramel – in a small saucepan, heat the butter and sugars. Bring to the boil, then take off the heat, add the cream and salt, and stir well. Pour onto the dry ingredients and mix well.

4. Put generous teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto a baking sheet or into a muffin tray. If using a baking sheet, flatten them as much as you can, but leave enough space for them to expand as they bake.

5. Bake the Florentines for 8 minutes, turning around half-way to get an even bake. They will be soft at first, but will harden as they cool.

6. To finish the Florentines, melt the chocolate (for a professional finish, you want to temper it – find out here). Using a teaspoon, spread some chocolate on the underside of each Florentine, then using a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate. It might not be obvious at first, but you’ll see it once the chocolate sets.

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{6} Kransekager

Each year, reaching my sixth post is something of a relief – we’ve made it to the half-way point without the kitchen catching fire or being destroyed by scalding molten sugar and burning butter. It feels like we’re on the home stretch, even if it means I’ve got to produce another six bakes to complete the series. Every time I do this challenge, I really enjoy it, but baking against a (self imposed) deadline of Christmas Eve does sap a little of the fun out of the process. And then we do it again the next year…

To celebrate getting this far, I’ve made a celebratory cake. Kransekager hail from Denmark, as well as Norway where they go by the radically different moniker of…eh…kransekake. They are made from a mixture of ground almonds, sugar and egg whites, which is mixed into a marzipan-like dough, and then baked until golden. The result is a slightly crisp exterior, with a soft, chewy centre, and they are utterly delicious. They also happen to be gluten-free if that’s your thing.

The impressive way to make them is by shaping the dough into ever-smaller rings (krans means wreath), then drizzling each layer with white icing to build a tall conical tower that can hide a bottle of champagne. These cakes are popular at Danish weddings, and in Norway on national day on 17 May. I’ve seen some suggestions from Danes that kransekager should be eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve with champagne. I’m not a massive fan of champagne with very sweet things, so I’ll leave that one to you. To each their own!

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There is also a variation on the kransekage tower. Rather than a cone which rises into the air, the rings can be arranged into an overflødighedshorn (say that after a few glasses of champagne!) which means “horn of plenty” or “cornucopia”. This can then be filled with sweets and chocolates, for a truly dazzling showstopper. If you’re looking for a way to serve all your Christmas baking in a memorable way, then this might be the way to do it. Perhaps I’ll have a go at that next year.

All these fancy cakes are great when you’ve got the time, but as you can see, I’ve avoided the elaborate cake tower and a fantastical horn of plenty, and instead made a simple bar form, with either end dipped in dark chocolate.

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I have found a few Danish versions online which all suggest using marzipan, sugar and egg white. However I’ve learned the hard way that what we call marzipan in Britain has quite a high proportion of sugar to nuts (usually a 3:1 ratio, rather than the 1:1 in Danish “raw” marzipan). The result in the past has been that I’ve ended up making things that were so sweet they were inedible! No worries about that here – I’ve made this using equal parts of ground almonds and icing sugar to get the perfect balance. I’ve also added a little bit of almond extract for that distinctive flavour. I love it, and a little really enhances the kransekager, but if you want to leave it out you can.

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These were really easy to make – the dough comes together easily, and it straightforward to shape. I opted for some long batons – you just measure out the dough, roll it into a ball, then roll into a long sausage. I’ve finished them with traditional white royal icing, but I dipped the ends into dark chocolate  – this provides a flavour contrast to the sweetness, but it also tidied up the messy ends after I’d baked them. I was originally going to leave them with just the icing, but I picked up the chocolate tip from Gitte at My Danish Kitchen. If you’re interested in finding more Danish recipes, her blog is great and there are so many recipes on there – it it’s Danish, I think Gitte has made it at some point!

To make Kransekager (makes 10)

For the marzipan dough

• 1 large egg white
• 150g ground almonds
• 150g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

For the icing

• 75g icing sugar
• 1 tablespoon egg white
• few drops of lemon juice

To finish

• 100g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub the paper with a dot of butter to prevent sticking.

2. Lightly beat the egg, then add the ground almonds, icing sugar and almond extract. Mix to form a soft dough (start with a fork, then finish with your hands).

3. Divide the mixture into 10 pieces. Dust a worktop with icing sugar. Form each piece into a ball, then roll each one into a sausage, around 9cm long. Press the sides so that you have a long triangle. Transfer to the baking sheet, leaving space between each for the kransekager to expand slightly.

4. Bake the kransekager for around 13-15 minutes until just golden, turning half way for an even bake. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

5. If dipping in chocolate: temper the chocolate, then dip either end of the batons in the chocolate. Transfer to a sheet of greaseproof paper and leave to set.

6. Make the icing – briefly whisk the egg white, then add the icing sugar and lemon juice. Beat until smooth but stiff – add more icing sugar is needed. Transfer to a piping bag and drizzle a zigzag shape on top of the kransekager. Leave to set.

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{4} Piparkakut

Gingerbread biscuits are found across the Nordic countries around Christmas time. There are some different shapes, different spices and some might have nuts or fruit added, but they share a spicy flavour and crisp texture. The Finnish version are piparkakut. I won’t even try to work out if that is the singular or plural name, as the Finnish is fiendishly complex! Instead I will distract you with my “elk in a snowy forest with squirrels under the stars” gingerbread fantasy. Hands down these are my favourite cookie cutters from what is probably an unnecessary large collection to being with!

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These cookies are incredibly more-ish. Because they are so light and crisp, you can happily much on two, or three, or four of them, and really not get full at all. In contrast, try eating four British mincemeat pies in one sitting and you’ll be floored for the rest of the day!

I made these using “dark syrup” (tumma siirappi in Finnish). This is a thick, sweet syrup that has almost a chocolate-like flavour, but none of the bitterness of molasses or black treacle. It also seems to be the right stuff as a quick search online shows pictures of syrup containers with gingerbread figures on them! But if you can’t get hold of this stuff, you can happily use golden syrup. Honey would work in a pinch, but it tends to produce slightly different results, so you might not get the same crisp texture as you get with syrup.

I made these once with a special ingredient that I thought would make them extra-fancy. I had dried some peel from Seville oranges, so I thought I would grind it up and add it to the dough for an extra aromatic orange flavour. Well, it worked…except that it worked just a little bit too well. The flavour and aroma were superb, but after a moment a strong medicinal flavour and a numbness took over, rather like sucking on a throat lozenge. Sadly my attempt to be fancy just ruined the whole batch! I did leave them for a couple of weeks in a dark cupboard in the hope that they would improve, but that eye-wateringly extreme orange flavour was still there, lurking in the dark, waiting for me. Never again! Just stick with a normal orange, or perhaps some Clementine or mandarin zest if you want to feel fancy. I’ve still got that jar of dried Seville orange peel hidden in a cupboard, taunting me…

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This recipe is great if you want to make a lot of very intricate cookies that keep their shape after baking. As you can see, the various cutters I used worked really well and I got nice sharp edges. I mean, if you’re going to go to the effort of making an elk, you want people to know that it is an elk, right? I’ve left them plain, but you can easily coat them in dark chocolate, or ice them with intricate patterns.

Finally, a word of caution. You might think a teaspoon of baking soda is not really enough in this recipe. Well, don’t be tempted to up the quantity of baking soda – I’ve tried adding more to provide more rise (assuming this would provide a crisper cookie too) but it easily turns into a soapy aftertaste. Yes, I’ve had a few issues with trying to mess around with this recipe in the past!

Makes around 40-50 cookies

• 110g (80ml) dark syrup or golden syrup
• 100g caster sugar
• 100g butter
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• zest of 1/2 orange
• 1 large egg
• 400g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• cold milk, to bind

1. Put the syrup, sugar, butter, spices and orange peel into a saucepan. Warm gently, then bring to the boil. Leave to cool.

2. Beat the cooled sugar mixture with the egg until fluffy. The mixture will be very soft.

3. Mix the flour, baking soda and salt, and stir into the rest of the ingredients. Add more flour if too wet, or add cold milk (a tablespoon at a time) to bring it together. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill overnight in the fridge.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Roll out the dough thinly (around 3-4mm). Cut out the cookies and transfer to the baking sheet. Tip: roll the scraps together and pop in the freezer to chill – it makes the dough easier to work with.

6. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until browned and slightly puffed, turning half way to get an even bake.

Note: It is worth baking one cookie first to test how long you need to bake them. If you are making different sizes, it is best to bake the same sized cookies together. Also be careful if your cookies have thin parts (like the legs on the elk) as they can burn easily.

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{3} Biscotti di Regina

Biscotti di Regina originate from Sicily, and the name means “queen’s cookies”. I’m not sure if they are named for or after a particular queen, but with a name like that, they are promising a lot!

These delightful little morsels are sweet and buttery, with a coating of sesame seeds the pop slightly when you bite into them. They also look very pretty, as the seeds form a neat pattern on the outside of the dough. I think they are a nice addition to the festive table, providing a contrast to all that chocolate, ginger, citrus and dried fruit. Yes, I know, shocking to believe that those flavours can all get a bit much, but sometimes you want something simple to enjoy with a cup of tea.

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I think these cookies have something of a Middle Eastern flavour, what with the sesame seeds and orange blossom water. Hardly surprising when you think about the history of trade across the Mediterranean.

However, if you want to play around with the flavours, you could swap the vanilla and orange blossom water for something else – aniseed is a typically Italian choice, and orange or lemon zest would add a stronger citrus note than the orange blossom water. If you’re feeling particularly creative, you could really depart from Italian flavours, and add things  like cardamom or even rose water. There are even versions that use saffron, if you want cookies with a spectacular golden glow.

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These biscotti are very straightforward to make – just rub the butter into the dry ingredients, then add egg and flavourings to get a soft dough that is just very slightly sticky. You’re rolling these guys in seeds, so you want it to be a bit sticky. If it is clinging to your fingers in great lumps, you’ve probably got too much liquid, so just add a bit more flour.

I shaped the biscotti by rolling into balls, then flattening into a squat sausage shape, so when they baked they formed an oval shape. If you prefer, roll them into very long, thin fingers for a more elegant shape to dip in coffee or vin santo, and adjust the baking time accordingly. For finishing, I used hulled white sesame seeds, which I think makes them look quite festive, almost like they’re coated in snowflakes. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a few black sesame seeds for some contrast, or go the whole hog and roll them in only black sesame seeds for a dramatic look.

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To make Biscotti di Regina (makes 30)

For the dough:

• 375g plain flour
• 225g butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
• cold milk, to bind

To decorate:

• 100g sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and work until it resembles breadcrumbs.

3. Beat the egg with the vanilla and orange blossom water. Add to the main bowl, and work to a smooth dough. If necessary, add cold milk, a tablespoon at a time, to bring the mixture together. It should be firm, but slightly sticky.

4. Divide the dough into three batches. Roll each piece into a long sausage about 30cm long, and cut into 10 pieces (3cm each).

5. Roll each piece into a ball, then form into a sausage shape between your hands. Roll in the sesame seeds to coat completely, then transfer to a baking sheet (leave enough space between each piece to expand).

6. Bake for around 25 minutes until golden, turning after 15 minutes to get an even bake.

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{2} Sandkaker

Sandkaker are a Norwegian Christmas cookie. Their name means literally “sand cookies” and reflects their golden colour and crisp-yet-crumbly texture. They often form part of the Norwegian tradition of syv slags kaker (seven sorts of cookie) whereby home bakers get themselves in a frenzy of flour, butter, sugar and festive flavours to produce an impressive selection of sweet treats. There isn’t a fixed list of what comprises the magic seven, so I like to imagine Norwegians quietly judging each other’s efforts after a few glasses of warm, boozy gløgg. If you’re keen to make some other Norwegian treats, I’ve made serinakaker and sirupsnipper and mor monsens kake in the past (so that’s four down, three to go to…).

So what are sandkaker? Well, they’re certainly, ahm, unusual. They are made with a buttery almond dough that is pressed into intricate tartlet moulds, and they look like…well…empty upside-down tartlets! I’ve come across all sorts of weird and wonderful Christmas baking in previous years, but this one might just take the biscuit (ha – bad pun!). For I have made cookies that have to be cut out with special cutters, or pressed into shape, or shaped in intricate ways, or decorated in a particular (i.e. time-consuming) way. But cookies that look like unfilled tarts? Well, you have to admit that this really is just a little bit odd!

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I could wax lyrically about the beautiful shapes and delicate flavours, but it is just plain strange that you would serve guests what looks like a tray of pastries without a nice filling. I mean…surely the filling is the whole point of a tart? And I’m not even that fussy when it comes to sweet treats – I’ll go for fruit, cream or chocolate, they will all do me just fine!

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But…having said all that…sandkaker are really rather nice. What you need to get your head around is that these are not pastry shells waiting to be filled, but cookies in their own right. The dough is rich – buttery and sweet – and I’ve flavoured it with vanilla and almond extract (or you can use ground cardamom, which is also a popular flavour).

The dough would make great cookies just rolled out and cut into shape, so shaping the dough by pressing it into intricate moulds is really just a way of making them look fancier than roll-and-cut cookies. And as you can see, they do look very pretty indeed on the plate!

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After making these, I don’t have too many insights to share as they are fairly easy to make. I did think that it might be easier to roll out the dough and lay it into the tartlet shells like pastry, but this is dough, not pastry, and it was too fragile to roll out successfully. As long as you keep the dough chilled, it is very easy to push into the moulds (which in fairness is what every other recipe suggests doing, so lesson learned there!). Try to keep the cookies thin, and prick the base with a cocktail stick – I found that the bottoms puffed up a little and stayed pale, but pricking a few holes let any steam escape, ensuring the base (or top!) would become golden. If you don’t have fluted tartlet moulds, you can still make them with a non-stick muffin tray (except you won’t have the fancy fluted finish).

The real fun comes with getting the sandkaker out of their moulds. They did seem to stick a little, and I did panic at first. I tried prising them out with a knife, but it turned out for me that the easiest way to get them out was to let them cool for a few minutes after baking, then to drop them onto a wooden worktop. After a couple of drops, they would just pop out of the tin. Simple!

If you do make them, just be ready for your guests to ask where the filling is, and snap back (tartly – ha!) that they’re supposed to be like that. Or if you are feeling generous, use them like tartlet cases, fill with some whipped cream and add a little jam with a Scandinavian flavour like cloudberry or blueberry.

To make Sandkaker (makes around 40)

• 170g unsalted butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 120g ground almonds
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 large egg
• 250g plain flour

1. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the ground almonds, almond extract, vanilla and the egg and mix well.

2. Add the flour and mix to a smooth dough – it should come together but will be fairly soft. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

4. Very lightly butter some small fluted tartlet cases. Pinch off pieces of the chilled dough, and use your fingers to press into the tins until you have an even, thin layer. Trim off any excess dough from the edges, and use a cocktail stick to prick a few small holes in the bottom.

5. Bake in batches – put 10-15 filled tartlet cases on a baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden, turning half-way to ensure an even bake. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes, then remove the sandkaker from the moulds. Leave on a wire rack to cool completely.

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Twelfth Night

Christmas Day has passed, and all the presents have been opened. The cats have played with the paper, and now retired back to their favourite sleeping spots. In our house, everything comes down on 1 January. I know you can keep the decorations up until Twelfth Night (the evening before Epiphany, commemorating the day that the Three Wise Men finally reached the manger) but I like the feeling of packing everything away on New Year’s Day. Perhaps that speaks to my moderation when it came to champagne this year?

While I love all the baking at Christmas, in some ways, I’m also really quite happy to be away from my kitchen. Yes, you’ve probably realised that I’ve just finished my fifth annual Christmas Baking Challenge. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. I’ll be more organised. I’ll plan. I’ll be realistic about how difficult the recipes can be and how many cookies my friends can eat. And then I recognise that I just love the challenge, with the thrill of trying to do it all before 25 December. I mean…how do I even find the time to get all that baking done at the time of year that is packed with things to do and various social events?

So here’s to my 2015 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I feel that this year I’ve been able to go back to more traditional recipes from European baking traditions (compared to my 2014 series), and I’ve really enjoyed digging around in some of the very location baking that goes in, particular in Italy and Switzerland. I loved making the mendiants and I’m so happy I’ve finally managed to crack the secret of tempering chocolate properly. The spicy Danish brunkager were a real hit, and the Italian cuccidati fig rolls were a pleasant surprise –  quite a few folk remarked that they were like a fancy version of a mince pie, with all that dried fruit and spice in them. But for me, there were two clear breakout stars this year – the dark, chocolately Basler Brunsli and the orange-perfumed ricciarelli, both of which flew off the serving plates, and were so simple to bake.

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As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the Pfeffernüsse might look like goose eggs if your eyesight is not good…

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Austrian Vanillekipferl)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Italian Cuccidati)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Italian Ricciarelli)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Danish Brunkager)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Italian Mostaccioli Napoletani)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (German Anisplätzchen)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (German Citrus Pfeffernüsse)…
…five Gold Rings (Spanish Truchas de Navidad)…
…four Colly Birds (Swiss Basler Brunsli)…
…three French Hens (French Mendiants)…
…two Turtle Doves (Swiss Mailänderli)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Dutch Taaitaai)!

So that is that for another year! But fret not, there will be plenty of posts during 2016, and I’ll be starting with the Twelve Bakes of Christmas all over again next December. If you’ve got ideas, hints, tips or suggestions, please let me know! Any recipes with strange ingredients or requiring some funny mould or tool are particularly welcome. And if they come with an interesting or amusing story behind them, so much the better!

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